Category Archives: Week 5

Is Python “like” or “a” language?

In this context let us assume Python as an instance of interactive language (genre): a type of programming language. Python is also an interpreted language (as opposed to compiling languages) which means that the computer would directly understand your instructions. This is possible because the code is run by a third-party entity (program) acting as the interpreter that directly interacts with the computer, rendering the computational process relatively slower. Even though it is already a “programming language”, I tried to think about how basic python works “like a natural language”, partially inspired by the computational theory of mind.


So far we have the sign system which is the code, consisting of letters, also known as strings, and numbers, which are called integers. The signs on their own mean nothing to the computer, but are of value to the human interpreter communicating with the computer through the programming language. The symbols would be the various operations represented in the form of <, >, ==, !, #, “ “, and, or, not, ( ). These figures “stand for something else” particularly, an algorithmic function, operations or a comment. However do these signs and symbols translate to Denning’s definition of “stuff”, that is an important component of a representational system?


It is very clear for programmers and non-programmers alike that a software will not run if your syntax is not correct. This means following the designated rule system of structures that are allowed in the programming language. For example, to generate a sentence, you simply cannot say:

Print hello world

The computer will explicitly tell you that you have performed a syntax error.

You have to emphasize in the proper syntax with parantheses and quotations. Like this:

print(“Hello World”)

Python works very well with Boolean Logic. Namely, the and, or and not symbols with which you can generate multiple translations or representations of the world on the program.”The symbols and their combinations express representations of the world, which have meaning to us, not to the computer. It is a matter of representations in and representations out.” (Mahoney). Isn’t it possible to think of the computer as a representational artifact, and not merely as a symbolic artifact? Truly understanding only symbols? And that signs mean nothing to the computer? Or do those two distinctions essentially mean the same thing? How does this contradict Simon’s grouping of both the computer and human mind as physical symbolic systems?

I was glad that Denning mentioned that early pioneers in computing actively sought to distinguish information as “the meaning assigned to data”. This cleared my confusion. However, why were so many people left unsatisfied? Of course the same dataset will give way to multiple dimensions of meaning and not just a linear way of making sense of something, marking a crucial precedent for a new way of conceptualizing the “semantics of data”.

Observable features of Python for how meaning is expressed:

  • Encyclopaedic levels

Abstraction (from modules)

  • Generativity

“The symbols and the strings may have several levels of structure, from bits to bytes to groups of bytes to groups of groups

of bytes, and one may think of the transformations as acting on particular levels.” (Mahoney)

  • Lexicon

A finite set of strings (a-z), integers (0-9, and statements

  • Externalized, material sign vehicles


  • Recursion

“But in the end, computation is about rewriting strings of symbols.”(Mahoney)

Can Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture model be applied to a programming language like Python? Why not? “Almost all have exceedingly limited capacity for simultaneous, parallel activity they are basically one-thing-at- a-time systems.” (Simon). However why does Simon call the human mind/brain a physical symbol “artifact”? Is it because we constantly use the mind as a tool to strengthen our symbolic capacities through areas such as reading, writing or even performing?

One limitation of this exercise, I recognize, is that since all of our attempts at understanding anything, say a symbolic system, generates from thought, how is it possible to accurately compare other symbolic systems to language, when we don’t have a consensual theory on the process of thought itself? So far, we are not even sure if the human mind originally thinks in terms of language or not. Or if we think in different ways in different interfaces. My final thoughts are that I agree more with the concept of a universal symbolic system than in that of a universal grammar.



  1. Selections from: Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: A Reader of Key Texts(PDF).
  2. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.
  3. Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Meaning Systems and Cognitive Semiotics“.

Try Out Terms and Concepts on Film/Video

Films or videos form a symbolic system where directors and producers try to convey some meanings through the “language” of shots, with or without the help of actual language which is another universally accepted and well-studied symbolic system. Often, shots without language move people a lot. In the film the Revenant, there are shots of the hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, walking through a vast ice land, ragged and tired. Referring to the context, viewers can perceive from those shots his resolution to seeking the revenge (or the Oscar award, in real life).

In the symbolic system of films or videos, the display of different kinds of light, on the screen is the perceptible component, or the material form that human beings can interact with, which is required by all signs and symbols. According to Peirce’s typology of signs, films or videos should belong to iconic signs for they bear more resemblance to our real life than any other media.

To break it down, I think the shots in the films or videos are the minimal meaning elements in this symbolic system, which to some extent is similar to lexicon in languages. They are the minimal units in the system to push the story forward.

In the meantime, the arrangement of shots can be compared to syntax. Though the rules of arranging shots is far less rigorous and generally agreed upon like syntax and more subject to users, there are certain patterns that are widely used. I’ve come across some of them while working as a intern editor in a news organization, like long shots followed by mid-shots and close shots.

The meaning that directors or producers want to deliver to the viewers through a set of shots can be viewed as the counterpart of semantics in languages.

Thus, Jackendoff’s “parallel architecture” can be applied here–the shots, the arrangement of shots and the meanings can fit into the tripartite model with three modules interface with each other and output the product we eventually see (and hear).

However, there are certain limitation of applying the model of language to films or videos, because other things that smaller in scale that a shot but certainly have meanings are not accounted for. For example, the costumes in Game of Throne are delicately designed with sigils of different houses. They are undoubtedly symbols but there is no place for them in the model. Other instances including musics or natural languages used in film or videos should also be considered.

Sign language

I know little about sign language, but it keeps appealing to me while reading, and I find myself trying to understand is sign language A Natural language or a kind of Gesture Language, or both.

I’d very much like to think sign language as a natural language at first.

In the Semiotic Matrix, I didn’t see a system where I can put gesture language in. But when I assume sign language is a kind of a natural language, I find out that it fits every property, feature, and function where labeled “Y”, which seems to me that it must indicates sign language is a kind of natural language.

Furthermore, Steve Pinker used sign language acquiring by deaf infants as the very crux of explaining why language is innate. In The Language Instinct he wrote “when deaf infants are raised by signing parents, they learn sign language in the same way that hearing infants learn spoken language.” Unlike other gesture sign like flag signal, sign language is way more sophisticated and seems to have consistence one-to-one match between spoken language and sign gesture.

At last, sign language has very strict combinatory rules and generative rules of itself, which makes it fits the UG and a systematic language, like English or Chinese. Therefore, sign Language is not common gesture, which, even can be understand by people, doesn’t count as sign language, or language itself. Without constrict rules (syntax), gesture are just random lip reading and gesture mimicking.

However, part of me still has problems with this idea.

Firstly, after the first week of this course, reading Peirce’s mode, I recognized sign language as an icon symbol, or index symbol at least. Even after this week’s reading, I still think sign language is not like other natural languages we deal with everyday, but more like a (Rhematic) Iconic Sinsign or Dicent (Indexical) Sinsign (Wikipedia, Semiotic Theory of Charles Sanders Peirce). In this case, sign language, as in my point of view, is not “fundamentally arbitrary or purely conventional”, but “resemble the signified” (Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basis). As showed in the pictures below.

Secondly, natural language is a collection of different languages. If we count sign language as one of the natural language, what is ASL (America Sign Language) and CSL (Chinese Sign Language) then? Dialect? Apparently not, since they are not only phonological different but syntactical and lexical different. As showed below are the similarities and differences in number indicating between ASL and CSL.

Which bring me to the third problem: sign language seems failed to fit Jackendoff’s Parallel architecture as well as processing architecture. Lacking the hearing interfaces, does that require a new structure of processing system? Or new interfaces rules that doesn’t apply to ordinary people? Will the processing system change to hierarchical or still parallel?

Semiotics and Aesthetics


One of the most important foundations of linguistics and semiotics is its generativity, that is, limited units can be combined and generate infinite meanings. Another convincing model in language study raised by Jackoffend about how people process information is the “parallel structure”, claiming that generative process in language happens by simultaneous interface among phonological, syntactical and conceptual structures. On the basis of these two presumptions, it occurs to me that aesthetics may can also be included into this whole semiotic structure.

I’m not an expert in aesthetics and also realize that pages and pages of words are required to define the concept “aesthetics” first if I want to discuss it precisely and flawlessly in logic, which will be unreadable and certainly beyond my capability. So I just simply define what I’m talking about here as “how people feel the sense of beauty”.

Many of you must have experienced a feeling before–at least I have for many times– that when you meet something marvelous, like a Picasso or a piece of Bach, you are just caught by a sense of beautiful and amazing even before you realize what it is about. In other words, a sense of beauty, or the process of aesthetics, happens meanwhile, if not before, people’s perception-meaning system. On this point, the mental process of aesthetics is highly similar, or related to which of semiotics.

Why do people regard something beautiful? The first cause, I assume, depends on the accumulated construction of the “beauty” word by the whole society, which is dynamically changed and accepted by all people taking part in this process as a collective memory. People feel something beautiful, because the object they are faced with fits their collective definition of “beauty”. It should be clarified that, as meaning system, besides the whole social/cultural context, construction of “beauty” also varies to some extent, thanks to some relatively personal experience of each person, which causes different judgement of beauty we can see every day.

But whatever the beauty is for any individual, it happens in these two steps. The first resembles Peirce ‘s model, but the process between the “signified” and “signifier” also generates all related memory of beauty judgement, besides the meanings related with the “signified” itself. Then a process of comparing follows, judging whether the object fits the accumulated memory of “beauty”. Beauty judgement here is a process parallel to meaning-generative system. Sometimes people feel it happens before figuring out what the object is just because the feeling is so strong that other outcomes in mental process are temporarily covered at that moment.

What I have as a result is that aesthetics is another part in the parallel structure of semiotic process. It derives from the conceptual part probably because beauty judgment, even more the moral judgement, is so important in human beings’ social activities that it evolves finally as a salient process independent on other conceptual contents.

Different genres of arts triggers people’s sense of beauty in slightly different ways. In Lessing’s work Laocoon: an essay on the limits of painting and poetry, he explains how a painting and poetry brings about pleasure to people, and furthermore, how should the author present ideas according to the form of his work to satisfy the audience at most. In general, Lessing claims that when watching arts in static form like paintings, people generate the sense of beauty mostly from imaging a series of associated situations, since the information provided is limited. But in the front of arts like poetry or drama, where complete stories develop with time, the audience usually generates the feeling designed and expected by the author.

Consider both Lessing’s theories and what I mentioned before. Static semiotic systems like paintings require more attendance and collective memory from the audience to generate aesthetic meanings than dynamic forms, such as poetry, drama and movies. It seems like a paradox that objects with less information offers more connections to broader meanings for each one.